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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, performed by the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, MN

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are DeadRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Waiting for Godot meets Hamlet. Waiting for Godot, the original show about nothing. (Take that, Jerry Seinfeld.) This play fills in the details about R&G (as I call them, to save myself a lot of extra typing), 2 minor characters in Hamlet. I also couldn't help but think that Disney latched on to this as well. The Lion King is considered a rewrite of Hamlet. A few years later, Disney came out with a direct-to-DVD movie called The Lion King 1 1/2, a look at The Lion King from Timon and Pumbaa's point of view. That was a rewrite of this play. The Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, MN, decided to put on this play this year. It was a natural fit, since they were already producing Hamlet. I saw the opening performance last night. Here are my thoughts.

In Act 1, the play opens with R&G flipping coins. They've done this almost 100 times, and the coins always come up heads. They wonder about the laws of probability, and whether there is any choice. They start to question which one is R and which one is G. They meet the leader of the acting troupe from the play within a play from Hamlet. R&G get them to do a show by a wager, "Take the year of your birth and double it. If it's even, we (R&G) win. If odd, you win." Interspersed with this are scenes from Hamlet, especially those involving R&G. In Act 2, the players put on a silent show (the script says "dumb show", but I'm not comfortable with that) that reenacts the basic outlines of Hamlet. R&G complain that they can't go anywhere, while the actors come and go as they please. The silent show also foreshadows the deaths of R&G. In Act 3, R&G are on a ship with Hamlet. They read the letter to the King of England, which says that Hamlet is to be executed. However, when R&G fall asleep, Hamlet switches the letter with one he wrote, saying that R&G are to be executed. The actors make a final appearance, and Hamlet disappears. R&G die. The final scene is the final scene from Hamlet, where it is announced that R&G are dead.

I don't believe I've given away any spoilers that aren't in Hamlet. Besides, the play gives away the ending in the title. I saw the Festival production of Hamlet last week, and I could see the connection. They essentially used the same set and the same costumes (except for R&G and the actors), and cast the same actors in the same roles. The actors who played R&G in Hamlet played R&G in this play. It was actually very funny. There were a lot of laugh lines in there, such as the actors realizing in Act 3 that any number doubled is even. Before the show, they brought an 8-year-old girl whose family had been going to the Festival for all 11 seasons. Some of the sexual humor would not have been appropriate for her. (it may have gone over her head, too.) One big laugh came in act 3, when an audience member accidentally sneezed. (That was me.) It came at just the right time, which was the end of a sound cue. (I verified this with one of the actors, who said it was in keeping with the spirit of the play. The scenes from Hamlet were staged in this play exactly as they were in Hamlet last week, the only difference being that some of Hamlet's soliloquies were silent.

Special commendations to Doug Scholz-Carlson and Chris Gerson, who played R&G. At times, the text itself started to sound almost like the fine print in a sales contract, but they were able to make it funny. They even interacted with the audience on occasion.

Another commendation to Jonathan Gillard Daly, leader of the actors. He's the only one in the play other than R&G to have a major speaking role. He carries this off well. I still remember one line, "We're actors! We're the opposite of people!" It brings the role to life.

Like Waiting for Godot, R&G does bring out some heavy philosphical questions. Are we just characters in someone else's play? Do we really make a difference? What would happen if we weren't here? (The last question is the plotline of It's a Wonderful Life.) There was a movie version of Hamlet in the 1940's starring Lawrence Olivier, and in that move, R&G did not appear at all. Their parts were deemed unnecessary to the plot. That brings home the question even more. However, those are questions to be pondered after you see the play, which I highly recommend. Great production, everyone.

For information on the Great River Shakespeare Festival, go to www.grsf.org.

For information on Winona, MN, go to www.visitwinona.com.

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